Nonverbal Communication in Arabic and English/Western Cultures

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Communication is the language of association, communication, connection, interdependence, healing, gathering, reporting, finishing and information. It means the creation of a relationship between individuals whereby, ideas can be exchanged. As such, communicating brings harmony and agreement between people who engage each other on various topics. Communication is done in various ways, and everyone needs to learn on the effective means of the latter to effectively collaborate with others in the society. Communication has two base types; verbal communication and nonverbal communication that have forms of relaying the intended messages.

Verbal communication refers to the use of sounds and language to relay information. It serves as a vehicle for expressing desires, ideas, and concepts and is vital to the processes of learning and teaching. In combination with nonverbal forms of communication, verbal communication acts as the primary tool for expression between two or more people (Hanes, 2015). On the other hand, nonverbal communication includes all behaviours, gestures, and movements that can be used to communicate messages meaningfully to others. Nonverbal communication includes the tone of voice, facial expressions, appearance, and other things that have an important role in the communication process. The latter is closely related to the cultural heritage of humans and might show variance depending on the origin of a person. The difference may also be when time communication takes place within the same culture, but it may be universal at times (Kharbanda & Stallworthy, 1991).

As a result of understanding the definitions of communication and its types, this essay will be focusing on the various features of nonverbal communication in the Arabic and English/ Western cultures. Nonverbal communication features have seven aspects of communication that requires understanding to develop deep understanding of the the interaction method. A significant difference exists in the use of nonverbal communication behaviours among different cultures and in the indications and interpretations of the latter. The features lead to forms of misunderstanding and sometimes to the breakdown of communication itself.


Proxemics is the idea of personal distance in public space, and how individuals use and maintain space and distance between self and others (Yang, 2017). The latter involves a public (more than 12 feet), social or formal (4-12 feet), in personal or informal (18 inches to 4 feet), and intimate space (less than 18 inches) (Essay, 2013). For example, collectivistic culture seen in Arabic people in the attitudes of dialogue or social contexts generally tend to converge physically from each other, perhaps to the point of contact. However, in individualistic culture Westerners in general, people tend to maintain a spatial distance between themselves and those who interact with them or engage in social activity (Yang, 2015). In both cases, the behaviour of the other party may be misunderstood if awareness of this issue does not exist.


 The behaviours include body movement, facial expressions, and visual communication. The latter is important in the interactions between people in a society (Yang, 2015). At the same time, it is a major source of misunderstandings and a factor in the breakdown of communication, because of the significant difference in the behaviours among different cultures. One can imagine, for example, what happens when someone uses a hand or finger signal without realizing that it is insulting or provocative in a culture of dialogue. The importance of having the interlocutor familiar with the signs of language signals before engaging in a cross-cultural dialogue can be illustrated by an example of a smile. Although all human beings smile in almost one way, each culture determines the subjects and contexts in which it may or may not smile, and they vary in the extent to which smiles are common among their children and in the jobs they perform. For example, the smile has numerous cultural norms attached to it. In the United States, it can be considered appropriate in many areas of the country to smile and look at someone you do not know either male to female. In Arabic culture, however, a female making eye contact and smiling at a man would be a hint of innuendo (O'Rourke & Tuleja, 2008).

The physical behaviours that cause problems in intercultural communication are hand and head movement. A speaker may designate a sign of approval or dissent or just follow-up, while the same signifies another meaning nod in another culture. For example, a study of the reasons for the failure of communication between Arab and British businessmen indicated that the movement of the head is left and right is a sign of rejection among some Arabs (Body Language with Specific Meaning in the Arab World, 2011), while it is a sign of tension among the British. The latter makes it hard for a deal to be made if there is no understanding that there is a difference in the way of passing information.

Similarly, some hand movements may be offensive, irritable or hostile in a culture while they are normal and natural in other beliefs. Others must be familiar with the habits of the party they are talking about using body signals so that they do not produce anything that may be misinterpreted or cause misunderstanding. A clear example is what happened when an American oil company in the early 1980s opened a restaurant for its workers in Saudi Arabia, working in the American way. Although the food was free, few workers ate it due to lack of proper interaction (Saudi Arabia, n.d.). An anthropologist was able to find out why the workers did not eat at the restaurant; the worker was standing in an empty tray shelf, waiting for the chef to fill it with food. Raising the hand with the empty tray was a sign of begging in Saudi culture at the time, so the workers refused the food taken in a similar way to begging. When the company changed the method by making the workers pass the tray on a metal surface, everyone accepted to eat at the restaurant.


Time-related behaviours include knowledge of the appropriate times for dialogue with each other, both day and year (Yang, 2017). Most Europeans and English, for example, do not work on Christmas, New Year, Easter, August, Saturdays and Sundays, while most Arabs prefer not to work on Eid al-Adha and Eid Al- Fitr, and on Fridays and August (Nusseibeh & Isseroff, n.d.). The behaviours also include issues such as variation in the culture of time estimation and respect for appointments. In polychronic culture, it goes without saying that many Arabs have special standards in the matters. Time for some Arabs may not be as important as many in monochronic culture like Westerners. Although Arabs usually say that “Time is like a sword if you do not cut it, it cuts you”, they are often good at killing time wasted. In the context of dialogue with the West, interlocutors must consider issues that seem obvious but unfortunately lacking, such as respecting and adhering to the agenda, focusing on dialogue, maximizing the time available, and respecting each other's time as closely as possible.


 Paralinguistics include audio tags, such as tone and volume. In addition, there are different types of sound communication through speed level, length of strokes, and impediment to fluency (hmmm, ahhh). All of these factors can strengthen or weaken the impact of messages conveyed by words. The most obvious example is that the tone of the voice and the concentration of some words on the sound can change the meaning of the sentence entirely to the opposite meaning of the words (Yang, 2015). For example, a high or low level of sound within a culture may be normal while it may be questionable or boisterous in another culture. Speaking loudly represents sincerity in Arab culture, but it is considered as aggressive in English and Western culture (Essay, 2013).


 The values ​​of silence during dialogue vary between cultures. The latter can be used to intimidate, save face, show respect or it can simply suggest that an individual is relaxed enough in the company of others to enjoy a quiet moment. Silence could be a hierarchical issue in a cross-cultural meeting. In countries where the highest-ranking member of the team is the spokesperson and the others are there simply to provide context like in Arab countries, relatively senior executives could sit quietly as a sign of respect for their leader (Bryant, 2018). Silence could be a simple case of the person having to speak in another language and taking their time to formulate a reply.


Haptics, as a mode of interaction “refers to the use of touch as a communication system” (Burgoon, Guerrero & Floyd, 2016). It is important in different cultures in their interpretation, and the terrible consequences that may result from their misuse. For example, in the Arab world, it is rare for a man to accept the wife of his friend or colleague at social occasions whereas, this is normal in many Western societies. In contrast, a Westerner may misinterpret the kissing of same-sex couples, Arab world (Essay, 2013), but some cultures reflects a great degree of intimacy. Moreover, there are intercultural differences within the Arab world itself with regard to the behaviour of the touch of welcome and hospitality. Social kissing, the number of kisses, and their positions differ from one society to another in the Arab region itself but vary according to the ideological beliefs among the people of the same region. In some cultures, the shoulder is kissed, and in another it accepts the cheek, hand, nose or forehead. It can be once, twice, three times or more according to social and cultural customs, while some Western cultures may be limited to just shaking hands, while others kiss the neck or cheeks.

Body Ornaments

Some clothing may be inappropriate in a context, while appropriate in another context. Dialogue in formal halls may not be acceptable for sportswear. The colours of clothing also have cultural connotations that may affect the moral state of people, such as the difference in colour and blackness in different societies and their emotions (Burgoon, Guerrero & Floyd, 2016). For example, in Western cultures, Black is the colour of death or formality. However, in Middle East, Black it represents rebirth, mourning, evil, and mystery (Cousins, 2012).

In conclusion, Non-verbal communication includes all the components used in interaction between people except for pronouncing words. It does not include what people say, but it includes how it is pronounced. The latter can be achieved through the language of the body, the tone of the voice, the way people wear clothes, or the time of contact. The extent and form of interactions is dependent on a cultural belief and varies from one region to another. Individuals always communicate non-verbally with others, intentionally or unintentionally, and understand that the latter is complex and depends largely on the environment and the public context. Besides, it is influenced by the cultural and social backgrounds, which is the centre stage for understanding between persons. The importance of non-verbal communication stems from the fact that it is stronger than verbal communication and more influential. The latter has been evident in the manner in which it builds relationships; thus, people can transfer messages to others. Effective communication requires observation and development of verbal and nonverbal communication skills, and entails consideration of the different circumstances of the interaction process that occurs.

August 14, 2023




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